- Jim Lovelady
Day 36: I Want You to Be
Updated: Feb 24, 2021
Oh, death, where is your sting?--1 Corinthians 15:55
There is nothing, as lucky, as easy or free…as death.
This song is a great example of courageous nihilism. It's the idea that since "God is dead and we have killed him" the best thing you can do now is look at death and the nothingness afterward and say, "Death, I'm not afraid of your sting!"--it's all the rage these days.
Oberst has rejected the religiosity of his parents and he has some good reasons--Christianity is culpable for most of the accusations that are thrown at it. But in the absence of God there is nothing left but the honest despair of nothingness…we are alone.
"I don't believe in anything but at least I'm not afraid to die."
Meh. That's not good enough for me.
I don't know anyone who, at least deep down, doesn't want there to be more after life. We all dream of heaven--at least in the moments when we put a friend in the ground.
So I don't mind starting at Nihilism and build back from there. I'll follow Conor Oberst--the creative energy behind the band, Brighteyes--into the abyss and come face to face with the despair of nothingness but I never valued the stubborn defiant courage that nihilists leaned on for comfort, though. I find it silly: overly romantic and naïve. Dead is dead. Nothing is nothing. But there has to be more than that.
We all long for grace. Some of us can't stand it. Some of us can't believe it. Some of us abuse it (and therefore reveal we don't understand it). Some of us rest in it. We all want it.
We want it to be real.
I let this song play on repeat and I conjure Bible stories like Job and his despair in the midst of meaningless suffering. I think of Ecclesiastes. I think of Abraham and how he didn't see what was promised to him or Moses who worked for his entire life only to be denied the Promised Land at the last minute. Then I think of Joseph's optimism of "God meant this for good," and how that guy drives me crazy because he got to see it all work out. Nevertheless, Joseph still felt the sting of death.
I get the doubt, believe me. You're right: we just don't know. We cling to the promise that things will be alright but that's in the midst of a desperate, cringe-faced hopefulness. Meanwhile, death haunts us all.
Tomas Halik is a Roman Catholic priest living in atheistic, post-communistic Czech Republic where he has spent his life engaging with European atheism that had a strong antagonism toward Christianity. Maybe it was worse than antagonism--maybe it was a strong ambivalence. Halik, in the face nihilistic atheism, says to God, "At the very least...I want you to be" and builds from there.
His interlocutors couldn't believe in Jesus so Halik's argument was, "You may be unable to acknowledge the validity of the Christian story but don't deny that this is a beautiful story. Don't deny that you want it to be true."
I know lots of people who look at the way the Christian story has worked itself out in the church and they use the messiness of the church as proof that there can't be a God. To that I say, "Let's set that to the side for a moment and just look at the story of Jesus."
It's the story of a God who would enter into his creation and become a part of it, die to redeem it and rise again to make that same creation whole and complete again. It's the story of someone who came to bring justice for the oppressed, love to the unloved, sight to the blind, mercy to discouraged. It's the story of someone making all things new.
I don't know anyone who has listened to the story of Jesus and then said, "Well, I hope that isn't true! That's awful! I would much rather there be nothing." I suppose this person would be a true atheist. Most atheists I know say something to the effect of, "Well, it would be nice but I just can't believe in that story." Fair enough, I've said the same things. Halik would use that against your atheism, though. He would say that the wishful thinking or the micro-hope that the story is true is evidence of something deep in your soul that resonates with the way things are meant to be. To agree that it's a beautiful story is the beginning of a faith journey that, I'm certain, will lead you to Jesus.
And I'm not convinced by the optimism that secular humanists have; that we can all make things better if we could just get our act together. It's a nice idea but it is not beautiful and gripping. It is actually a gospel (an announcement) that leads me to despair when I really think about it. No, ultimately, when I dialogue with secular humanism, the bottom line is, I just don't like that story. I find it to be less than hopeful and I don't find in it a power to change the world, especially when I am called to start by changing my own life. I don't find that it can give hope to the oppressed. I don't find that it can change the hearts of the powerful. I don't see that love is the ultimate end with secular humanism. I remain unconvinced.
So I will continue to explore a story that I find to be more beautiful. It's a story that is so mysterious and confusing and often infuriating but nevertheless riveting that I can't turn away. It's a story that finds its way into all our best stories because deep down inside we all hope it is true, that "God loves things by becoming them" and redeems them and dwells with them and makes them like him and then rescues them from the sting of death.
I confess, you are in charge. You can do anything. You are beautiful. Amen.